BUFFALO, NY -- This summer should have been an easy one for Sabres management after the team reached the 100-point plateau and won the Northeast Division.
Instead, a first round upset at the hands of the Boston Bruins completely erased all the positives that came out of the regular-season.
When Buffalo held an end-of-season press conference and announced that Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff would return for another season, there was a sense that changes would be coming in the off-season. The names of Tim Connolly, Derek Roy and Drew Stafford were the first to be cycled in the rumor mill, mostly because of their lack of playoff production.
Anyone that has followed the Sabres during the Regier/Ruff era knew that major changes would not be coming. Regier is painfully patient when making decisions that will affect the future of the franchise and this off-season has not been much different.
Connolly, Roy and Stafford are still a part of the team, but that did not stop management from giving the team a major facelift. The top-six was unaffected but the bottom six forwards and the defense received a major overhaul.
As the off-season moves began, the team quickly locked up the services of gritty winger Mike Grier before he could hit the free agent market. Grier is a fan favorite and player that fits Ruff’s style of play. He is a physical player that uses his size at both ends of the rink.
With Grier inked for another season, the waiting game began for some of the Sabres key free agents. When the July 1 signing period began, veteran blue-liners Henrik Tallinder (New Jersey Devils) and Toni Lydman (Anaheim Ducks) found new homes, leaving fans to wonder what would happen with the Sabres blueline.
With the defense depleted, the Sabres wasted no time signing free agent defenseman Jordan Leopold from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Leopold split the season between Florida and Pittsburgh and put up respectable numbers with 11 goals and 15 assists.
After the Leopold signing, the team once again focused on forwards as the off-season continued. They did not offer contracts to veterans Adam Mair and Matt Ellis, signaling changes amongst the forward ranks. Cody McCormick was the first piece of the puzzle after signing a one-year deal with the club.
McCormick spent the entire 2009-2010 season playing with the Sabres AHL affiliate the Portland Pirates but injuries forced him into the Sabres lineup in the playoffs. He showed the coaching staff enough to earn him a one-way deal this season.
Still the team had a glaring need for another center on the third or fourth line and Rob Niedermayer fit the bill. He signed a one-year deal to help give the Sabres the depth they desired up the middle and he adds a much needed veteran presence to the team.
Most teams focus their attention on unrestricted free agents, but the Sabres' real excitement began when they focused on their own RFAs.
South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy elected to exercise his right to arbitration after a mildly successful rookie season and the Sabres elected to take Patrick Kaleta to arbitration. They were able to lock up Kaleta to a two-year deal before his hearing but Kennedy was awarded a one-year $1 million contract by an arbitrator.
The $1 million award seemed high for a player that scored 10 goals and had 26 points as a rookie and it forced the Sabres to make their most controversial move of the season when they waived and eventually bought out Kennedy.
The popularity of Kennedy in Buffalo was certainly a factor in the negative fan reaction. In most cities, it would have been looked at as a necessary move to free up space for other players. In Buffalo, it was looked at as the team not spending the money necessary to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The same day the team released Kennedy, they added another key component to the defensive corps when they signed Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, who is credited with being a big part of Mike Green' success in Washington and is expected to help further the career of Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers. At 6’4” and 217 lbs., Morrisonn adds size to the Sabres blueline that should allow Ryan Miller to continue his success in goal.
Sabres fans continue to be skeptical of the team’s ability to improve upon their first round playoff exit, but management is convinced they have the tools to compete. Add rookies Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe into the mix at forward and the team has the potential to improve both offensively and defensively this season.
There is still time for Regier to surprise everyone with a blockbuster move but many believe the Sabres will start the season with their current roster. Only time will tell if they made the right decisions.
Henrik Tallinder (D)
Toni Lydman (D)
Tim Kennedy (F)
Adam Mair (F)
Matt Ellis (F)
Rob Niedermayer (F)
Cody McCormick (F) – AHL Portland
Jordan Leopold (D)
Shaone Morrisonn (D)